Vaclav Havel's Enduring Legacy

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Marco Werman: Two decades before the Arab Spring, there was the Velvet Revolution. That was the non-violent rebellion against communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. It was one of the pivotal events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe. Well, yesterday the leader of the Velvet Revolution died. Czech playwright, writer, and President, Va ¡clav Havel was 75. Today, thousands of mourners are paying their respects in Prague. Paul Wilson translated many of Havel's written works into English. He joins us on the line from Ontario, Canada. Now you were in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Velvet Revolution, Paul Wilson. It was 1989, Wenceslas Square in Prague, a very heady time. How close were you to Va ¡clav Havel then?

Paul Wilson: Well, I was close in the professional sense, in that I had translated already at this point, which is his letters to his wife from prison and his fundamental essay, The Power of the Powerless, and I'd also just finished translating his autobiographical book, Disturbing the Peace. So, you know, once you translate somebody at that level, you feel that really know them from the inside.

Werman: And tell us about just what you saw in him. It's 1989, there he is at the square. Who was the Havel that you were seeing at Wenceslas Square?

Wilson: The Havel I was seeing in Wenceslas Square was someone who was incredibly energized and incredibly in control of things. And, the authority with which he guided this ad hoc group of dissidents and negotiated with the communist party day after day until finally they negotiated them right out of history. It was quite astonishing to see how quickly he established his position as leader and how naturally it seemed to consider him as the one and only candidate for president.

Werman: Now you mentioned that essay, The Power of the Powerless, that Havel wrote. That was 1978, I believe.

Wilson: That was correct.

Werman: That was about non-violent opposition to tyranny. It would seem to be a subject quite relevant in many parts of the world today. What countries are you likely to find translations of The Power of the Powerless?

Wilson: Well, I can tell you that this essay has been translated into Spanish and smuggled into Cuba. It was an inspiration to the Poles in the late 1970"²s just before the formation of Solidarity. It's been translated into Chinese. It's been translated into Persian. So, especially in countries like Cuba, which are run very much along old Soviet lines, really find this essay an inspiration.

Werman: Had you spoken with Va ¡clav Havel recently about the similarities between his Velvet Revolution and all those other uprisings in the former Eastern Bloc in '89 and the Arab Spring of this year?

Wilson: The last conversation I had with him was in March as I was on my way to Cairo via Prague and he was very frail at that point and had just come out of the hospital. He was very intrigued by the idea that I was taking his book, you know, in my knapsack, as it were, to Cairo. And I asked him if he would give me permission to act as his agent to find a translator into Arabic. And as we speak now it's being translated into Arabic. He was very excited about that idea, but then he said to me you know are the Arabs ready for democracy and I said well Va ¡clav, were you guys ready for democracy? No! It was something that took everyone by surprise. I'm sure that the Egyptians and the Tunisians and so on will sort of muddle their way through the way you guys did.

Werman: As you know, Paul Wilson, long after the fall of communism, Havel continued to critique top-down authoritarianism. In fact, he wrote an opinion piece in 2004 on Kim Jong Il, who just died. And he said the Kim was responsible for taking millions of human lives and Havel wrote "All of this is happening and the world is standing idly by". I'm just wondering if you can sum up for us what was Havel's vision of democracy.

Wilson: His vision of Democracy was, on the one level, very down to earth. He wrote a book after he'd been president for about a year, called Summer Meditations in which he set out his vision for what he would like the future to be and it's a society in which, the kind of civil society is very rich and in which there are all kinds of self governing organizations. Churches, and schools, universities. It's a society in which, on every main street there are two butcher shops and two bakery shops, and two newsstands. In other words, the idea of small business and competition. He was not a wildcat capitalist. He believed in the market economy but he wanted it to be highly regulated to avoid all the kind of buccaneering that goes on in the economy which we have seen a lot of lately. So, his vision was very practical and down to earth and at the same time this astonished me because, he never in his own lifetime he never had any experience of what this was like. Yet he seemed to instinctively know, that that was the ultimate goal.

Werman: Canadian Journalist and Translator Paul Wilson who translated many of the writings of Va ¡clav Havel, thank you very much indeed.

Wilson: Thanks, very much.